In 1978, Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau stood in the shadows of Akron, Ohio's sputtering smokestacks, penning a 5,000-word piece about the city's music scene.
Why did the self-described "Dean of American Rock Critics" make the jaunt from NYC to my hometown, a smallish city most famous as home to Goodyear, Firestone, and the All-American Soap-Box Derby? He'd been blown away by Akron's most famous band, Devo, and impressed by The Akron Compilation, a collection of offerings by Akron-based punk and new wave bands produced by Stiff Records, a British label famous for issuing classics like Elvis Costello's My Aim Is True and The Pogues' Rum Sodomy & the Lash. Xgau, wanted to see what was going on in Akron and, apparently, had the expense account to make it happen.
I finally got my hands on both vinyl and digital copies of The Akron Compilation this summer, only to be majorly let down. Though it was recorded before I was born, I'd been building it up in my mind since college, naively believing I'd find some sort of major revelation about my city and myself in those grooves. As it turns out, there are no hidden Chrissie Hyndes (or even a stray Tim "Ripper" Owens) on the record; just a bunch of bands you've never heard of for a reason, along with two tracks from The Waitresses, famous for their holiday hit "Christmas Wrapping," and "Truckstop Queen," a fun song from Rachel Sweet, who went on to write the theme for John Waters' cult classic Hairspray.
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Still, for some reason, Christgau was impressed. The loquacious bastard rambles too much for me to pull any sort of decent quote from one of his mammoth essays, but this seems to be something akin to a thesis: "Akron-Cleveland has been uncommonly blessed with musical movers and shakers who have taken care of business well."
I tell this story not to provide an history lessons on the music scene of Akron, but to illustrate the importance of a well-assembled regional compilation. As far as the lasting legacy of the DIY ethos goes, it's hard to top the compilation record. Look up the Wikipedia entry on any "scene" of the past 40 years and you'll invariably come across an attendant comp, a postcard from the city's dingiest bars hailed as an important and influential touchstone. Check out Seattle's Deep Six and Sub Pop 100, both of which foreshadowed what was coming way back in '86, or Jack White's home-studio-produced The Sympathetic Sounds of Detroit from 2001. Does a comp mean your city's scene is going to hit the big time? No. Could a scene sprout without a serious comp? I'm no so sure.
This is why I'm ridiculously excited about a novel new comp from Phoenix, When in AZ. The collection, coming out next week, is massive and ambitious. Maybe even massively ambitious. With an $8 download card (proceeds benefit charity), you'll get 55 Phoenix-area artists covering songs by other Arizona artists. Along with the recorded output, organizers are planning six shows at the best small venues in town. All in all, pretty cool.
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Sat., Sept. 5, 6 p.m., 2009